The first thing you must do when you start to find your family tree is talk to as many family members as possible. The second thing is to make good records of everything they say, however insignificant it may seem.
The best way to record this initial information is to split it into two types. Family stories are a wonderful resource but they don’t always tie into official records. You should always aim to record the Vital Records (Birth, Marriage and Death) for everyone in your tree. Whilst family members will certainly point you in the right direction, you cannot rely on the accuracy of memory. Even if you don’t get copies of the actual certificates to begin with, you should at least try to get the reference number of the certificate. These can be found in a number of places online. Most of the Family History sites offer these records subject to subscription level, and you can find many of them for free on sites like Free BMD.
Careful notes should be made of these details as it will make later searching easier, and if you do decide to get copies of the certificates, these numbers are invaluable. If you don’t find what you are looking for, or if the details don’t quite match with those you are expecting, don’t be discouraged. There are any number of reasons why this can happen. Records can be mis-transcribed, genuine mistakes are made, people don’t always tell the truth when submitting information and database searches are not perfect. It is always worth searching in more than one source and repeating a search some later can often turn up something new.
If your family have copies of original Birth, Marriage and Death certificates they may be prepared to let you have a copy. These certificates are a gold mine of information, often revealing surprising facts that can help you trace your family tree back another generation or more.
When you first start to gather the details of your family history you will quickly gather lots of information and more pieces of paper than you imagined possible. Whatever method you first decide on to store your information, it can be guaranteed that you will change your mind several times so summary sheets are a good starting point. You can always draw quick basic facts from these and point yourself in the direction of your full notes. A blank form can be filled out when you are with your family and the details transferred to a spreadsheet or family tree when you have time. This is the basic information summary sheet that I use.
If you fill in as much as you can, always in pencil, you can fill in the gaps as your family tree research develops. You can download a blank copy here > Basic Family Information Sheet (right click and choose ‘Save As’ to save to your computer)
When it comes to family stories, if you have the means to record them, in either audio or video format, that is the best. These first hand storied add immeasurably to your family history. Failing that, try and get your relatives to write down their stories as these will be invaluable source documents. You may find that the same story will be told in different ways by different people, which all adds to the sum of knowledge.
When you have the gathered the stories cross check for people, dates and places and any other concrete facts and add these to your notes about the individual. A slip folder for each person is a good idea at this stage. It enables you to put things in a safe place for later evaluation if nothing else.
In the early days you will have many small snippets of family information that don’t seem to fit in anywhere. They will come in useful in your search to find your family tree so storing them safely where they can quickly be found is a good start.